Understanding Generational Differences at Work

Understanding Generational Differences at Work

Have you ever found yourself struggling to understand the behavior and values of employees or peers who are older or younger than you? Generational differences are another form of diversity that impacts how people communicate and function as a team. The first step in learning about generational diversity is to recognize one’s own generational characteristics, and then to understand the traits exhibited by people in different age groups.

American social scientists have studied these differences and developed a model for understanding. Generational characteristics are a composite of all people in the generation; no single person exhibits all the characteristics of a generation. In fact, people born on the cusp of two generations may relate to either or both of the groups. What is interesting is that people don’t tend to grow out of these generational characteristics as they age.

There are five basic generational groups born in certain time spans who share major life experiences. (Note that there are some variations in date frames among social scientists.)

  1. The Traditionalists (often Veterans) 1922 to 1945
  2. Baby Boomers 1946 to 1964
  3. Generation X 1965 to 1976
  4. Millennials or Gen Y 1977 to 1995
  5. Centennials or Gen Z 1996-2010

Each generational group has the common experience of key defining events that occurred during their childhood. They tend to share key personality traits, core values, and communication and work styles.


The youngest of the traditionalist generation are now 75, so most have retired from the work force. Their values and work habits still impact their children in the Baby Boomer generation.

  • Defining Events: Great Depression, New Deal, World War II, Radio
  • Core Values: Respect for rules and authority, hard work, dedication
  • Personality: Conservative, Conformist
  • Communication and Work Style: Value experience, face to face communication, loyal to employer, honor chain of command

Baby Boomers:

  • Defining Events: Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, Vietnam, Kennedy and King Assassinations, Cold War, Television
  • Core Values: Optimism, human relationships, team orientation, health and wellness, personal growth, achievement by “paying one’s dues”
  • Personality: Driven, hardworking, overperform, love-hate relationship with authority
  • Communication and Work Style: Respectful, face to face communication, give examples to feedback, require full attention, loyal to employer

Generation X:

  • Defining Events: Fall of Berlin Wall, personal computers, faxes, AIDS, MTV, increase in divorce, single parents, latchkey kids; increasing cost of education
  • Core Values: Thinking globally, techno-literacy, diversity, unimpressed with authority, informality; want to love their work
  • Personality: Risk-takers, skeptical, prioritize personal life and family, focus on job quality vs. long work hours, view bosses as colleagues
  • Communication and Work Style: Autonomous, utilize technology, value merit over experience, want clear and concise objectives (bullet points, etc.), value fun, relaxed atmosphere

Millennials or Generation Y:

Millennials are currently the largest cohort in the workforce.

  • Defining Events: Internet, 9/11 attack, Iraq War, school shootings, communication by texting
  • Core Values: Achievement oriented, self-reliance, open-mindedness, diversity, techno- literacy; women’s equality; work-life balance
  • Personality: Optimistic, confident, tenacious, prefer collective action
  • Communication and Work Style: Goal-oriented, value collaboration and teamwork, want to be challenged, want their opinions to be valued, require immediate feedback, utilize technology; change jobs often to advance

Generation Z:

  • Defining Events: “Digital natives”, smartphones, social media, Black President, increasing racial and ethnic diversity, gay marriage; more global travel; student debt
  • Core Values: Progressive, women’s equality and shared parenting, work-life balance, concern about climate change; accepting of racial, ethnic religious and LGBT+ differences
  • Personality: Competitive, fast learners, overwhelmed, can often be lonely and depressed; want connection
  • Communication and Work Style: Fast-paced, financially driven, entrepreneurial; multitaskers; prefer to work independently; like face to face interaction (could beFacetime); want flexibility; search for solutions on-line. Communicate with texts, instant messaging, and social media.

Despite its challenges, there are tremendous benefits to having a multigenerational work force. Each group thinks about the world and workplace differently and can offer new perspectives. Every generation offers a different skill set, and these can be complementary. For example, younger employees are usually more facile with medical and administrative software, while older employees have more knowledge and experience with clinical conditions. Employees can bond by helping each other learn. It is the manager’s job to create an environment in which everyone’s contribution is valued, and to point out that everyone benefits when employees appreciate each other as mentors. In addition, having a diverse multigenerational workforce is likely to make patients of different ages more comfortable.

It can be useful and sometimes fun to have a staff meeting on this topic. Print out and share formal information about intergenerational differences, and talk about how they play out in your office. One great idea for a team building exercise would be to ask each employee to share a unique challenge or experience that shaped who they are.

Given the major intergenerational differences in values, communications, and work styles, it is clear that managers need to customize their management style accordingly. Managers should first work on self-awareness, and then strive to understand their employees. Avoid the danger of stereotyping employees based on their age grouping, as every employee is unique. Managers should be open-minded to new ideas about achieving goals. The delicate balance is to manage people differently while still being fair to everyone. What motivates your employees to be top performers? How can you play to their strengths and help them grow? At the same time, be very clear about your expectations and time deadlines, as these can often be misunderstood.

It’s easy to see how managers and employees from different generational groups could feel uncomfortable with each other’s personalities and work styles. Communication styles can be a source of frustration and conflict. Baby Boomers value face to face contact and would probably want to meet in person to discuss an issue. Younger employees might prefer to receive information by email or text. Consider expanding your communication strategies and find out how your employees prefer to receive feedback.

There is a big generational difference in the amount of eye contact people have. Gen Z employees (digital natives) had a device in their hands from a very young age and are simply used to looking down. This is not meant to be a sign of disinterest in the person speaking to them, but older supervisors or employees often feel disrespected in this situation. Perceived rudeness is also a customer service issue for older patients.

Retention of younger employees can be a huge challenge. Loyalty to employers has decreased with each generational group. After seeing parents downsized and laid off after years of dedication, they do not expect to stay at the same job for many years. They change jobs often for career/financial advancement, or if they feel uncomfortable with managerial decisions or their work environment. Flexibility around work-life balance is very important to them.

Much more could be said about this fascinating topic of intergenerational differences in the workplace. Dynamics will change as Generation Z becomes a much larger part of the workforce, and managers will have to adapt their approach to them. At the same time there will be continued rapid technological and societal transformation. The good news is that the diverse skills of your multigenerational employees can both provide stability and the ability to adjust to rapid change.

To learn more about how our consulting company can help your practice, contact Advantage Healthcare Consulting today.